This week it started to feel as though we have finally made it past the hungry gap. The early months of the year are well known for having slim pickings when it comes to fresh food. Our stores of roots, tubers and squash are starting to dwindle. During February and March, apart from the stalwart kale, few plants are still standing in the kitchen garden.
The first warm weather of the year brings a welcome break with fresh spears of sprouting broccoli and the tang of rhubarb. By the end of April we are starting to bring in tender asparagus shoots and early sowings of salad. It won’t be long and there will be peas, beans and strawberries to fill our bellies. Unfortunately, it takes months of meticulous planning and careful attention to grow. Thankfully, Mother Nature is currently feeling particularly generous.
Recently, I’ve been able to take advantage of a new crop of fresh green shoots. I have been supplementing my diet with flavours directly from my surroundings. I was stunned by how delicious pasta could be with a dressing of pesto made from the wild garlic, unaware of its anti bacterial qualities. I’ve discovered a love of the luxurious, ‘silky’ texture of nettle soup, and didn’t realise it helps reduce inflammation. I have been enjoying the fresh, cucumber-like taste of cleavers added a water bottle, oblivious to the cleansing effect it provides.
In the coming weeks I’ll be indulging tastes from my childhood with lashings of elderflower cordial. I might use my weeding to provide me with dandelion root coffee. I could make Jack-by-the-hedge sauce for my Sunday lamb roast. I’m looking forward to an Autumn filled with roasted hazelnuts, blackberry jam, and sloe gin. If I’m lucky, I might even find a few tasty mushrooms for a Sunday fry up.
It’s easy to forget that every one of our cultivated crops has been carefully selected from a wild relative. The wild plants that fill our countryside are perfectly adapted to the variable British weather. They rarely suffer from problems with pests or diseases and do not need our constant care and attention to flourish. Before we had the luxury of a supermarket to provide our every need, the average person would need to have an impressive knowledge of the plants that grew in their vicinity and their many uses. In times of scarcity they would have provided a valuable supplement to our diets.
These skills have been gradually eroded by the progress of technology, but in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in their use. Chefs eager to give a stamp of seasonality and locality to their cooking have rediscovered the culinary delights just outside our doors.
We should be careful about how we pick. Always choose a safe site, away from any pollution. Only pick things you can positively identify and are abundant. Only pick a small part of the total ‘crop’ and trying not to take the whole plant, so it can still survive and reproduce. In many ways, rather than depleting our dwindling wild life, foraging could provide a valuable way to reconnect people with nature. By spending time identifying, noticing and eating these plants, we greater appreciate their value and vulnerability. Rather than encouraging people to ransack the countryside, it can help us to further understand the interconnectedness of life, and strengthen our desire to protect and conserve it.